Ken Levine: In Defense of “Jokes”

Another brilliant mess o’observations from M*A*S*H’s Ken Levine:

big_bang_theory_season2_screen01by Ken Levine

…There are several definitions for jokes.  Here’s one:  joke is something spoken, written, or done with humorous intention.  

In some cases it has a punchline, or just something you didn’t expect, which amuses you.

Jokes have become uncool, passé, something to sneer at and scorn. Writers who resort to jokes are hacks or old or worse – old hacks.  A commenter yesterday who’s a writer on a sitcom said his showrunner threw out anything that was too “jokey.”  And I will grant you there are many bad jokes, lame jokes, racist jokes, old jokes, formula jokes, juvenile jokes, and blonde jokes.

But there are also good jokes. And good jokes make you laugh. Not smile, not nod in appreciation, but laugh.

That monologue you loved at the Golden Globes delivered by Tina Fey and Amy Poehler – those were jokes. The riotous plays that Neil Simon wrote for Broadway for over fifty years – those contained jokes. My Oscar review that many of you enjoyed – those were jokes.

CHEERS had jokes. Single-camera war comedy MASH had jokes. So did ultra-sophisticated FRASIER.  ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT was crammed with them.

THE DAILY SHOW relies on jokes. So does THE COLBERT REPORT. And Louis C.K. builds his entire stand-up act around them.

You get the point. There’s no shame in writing a line that evokes a laugh.

Recently, Chuck Lorre became the first producer to have four shows in the top ten. That is a remarkable achievement. And the one common denominator in all four shows?  Guess.

Now you may say, “I’m just looking to reach a niche audience. I don’t want to pander to the masses.” Again, the jokes don’t have to be stale or “vagina.” And if you’re putting in all that time and effort to make your show, don’t you want the largest audience you can get?

Plus, always remember that television is a business. Unless you have a big hit you’re vulnerable. Your show drops from a .08 to a .04 Deadline Hollywood will announce you’ve lost 50% of your audience. If your show gets hard to sell or the network has something else in the pipeline they think might do better, you and your niche show are gone.

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